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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Marriage Seminar in Dzerzhinsk

On Friday, February 3, we began a 6 session marriage seminar at Cornerstone Church in the city of Dzerzhinsk. The response has been good, so far, for this small church. We have averaged 25 people per evening and several people have told us how they are enjoying the sessions. This coming weekend we will teach 3 more times.

Marriage ministry is a real need in Russia. The country has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, and sadly, the church is not much different. Families have few good models of a peaceful, God honoring family life. We feel privileged to teach these sessions and are asking the Spirit of God to touch lives and cause people to live as real disciples as they claim to follow Him.

The Advertisement for the Seminar

The first two evenings we were in a hall that was very cold and uncomfortable.

The last evening we moved to a smaller hall were it was a bit warmer.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Love, Sadness, Joy, Heartbreak, Questions

Last evening we were teaching a marriage seminar in the city of Dzerzhinsk. This is the city that our family lived in from mid 1994 - early 1996. During that time we met many people and made many friends.

One time, while Karen and I had taken a trip by train to Moscow, a little girl knocked on our apartment door, and asked our teenaged children if she could stay overnight. She lived with her grandfather, who was often drunk and would lock her out. Her mother was off drinking in the village, and her father had disappeared years before. The kids said yes, so she stayed.

We arrived home very early in the morning, getting to our apartment about 6:00 AM and were surprised to see this little urchin sleeping on our sofa. At breakfast the kids told us the story how she had been locked out of her home and had no place to sleep. Lena stayed with us most of that day and late in the evening it became clear that she wanted to stay overnight again. What to do?

We decided to let her, not knowing where this would lead. One night stretched into a week and then longer. Her family, whom we had never met, didn't seem to miss her. We began to buy clothing for her and she just became a part of our family and the pack of young people who hung out at our home.

That fall we received a visit from the local school authorities. They told us that they were aware that we had this young girl living with us and they wanted to know what our intentions were. We told them that because she apparently needed a home we were simply providing for her. They then asked us if we were taking responsibility for her and would we provide for her needs. We thought that was obvious since we were already doing so. We were told that since Lena had begun living with us she had become markedly happier and a better student. They then asked if we would possibly be interested in adopting this young girl. We said we would be open to the idea.

As the weeks stretched into months we came to consider Lena as a part of our family. She began to call us Momma and Papa. She was happy and adjusting well even though the structure of our family cramped her independence somewhat. Up until the time she came to live with us she had pretty much grown up on the street.

During that time we contacted our mission board (different from the one we serve with now). They gave us permission to pursue adoption, but then within two months under a change of leadership they reversed the decision! We were told, "You were not sent to Russia to adopt children, but to preach the Gospel." We were told that we had lost our vision and purpose. After going back and forth for several weeks we were told that they were withdrawing their support and we were told we must return to America!

During the time that this was happening the local officials were trying to have Lena freed legally for adoption but it was at this point a family member intervened and said no. They were not opposed to Lena living with us (especially since we provided for all her needs), but they opposed the adoption.

As time began to run out we could see that we would indeed be forced to return to America and that we would not be able to keep Lena. It was heartbreaking for us. The time came when we had to tell this little girl that we were leaving, and that she could not come with us! She would have to return to a terrible home situation, possible abuse and no care at all. The injustice of the situation was terrible for us to bear and knowing we had to abandon this young child whom we had come to love was like ripping our hearts out of our chests. How do you tell a child who loves you and trusts you, "We are leaving. We can take the cat and dog, but you have to stay behind."

Returning home we lost touch with Lena because of the chaos in Russia during those years and the lack of internet and other forms of communication. We wondered what her fate would be. We did not imagine that it would be good. We hoped she would stay in the church, but we knew the chances were not good.

Five years later in 2001 we were able to make a trip to visit Russia. During that trip we saw Lena. She was now 18 and a young mother. She had gotten pregnant and married her boyfriend, a young man who had been in and out of prison several times. It was both a happy and sad reunion. Lena was her same outward self, happy and funny. Inside however we could see the sadness in her life. We all knew that the past was behind us and things were different. We were not her parents, and we were there only for a short time. The time together was awkward at best. We returned home, happy to have seen Lena, but not happy with the way things turned out.

In 2004 we returned to Russia to live and within a short time Lena made contact with us. She was now separated from her husband and a struggling young single mother. Her friends were not a good influence. We spent the day together, but it was awkward once again.
We lost track of her completely over the next few years. We knew she lived in Dzerzhinsk, but our lives were on different tracks. We worried that like many young Russian people, she would end up addicted to drugs and suffer the consequences.

Yesterday, while I was teaching, she came into the hall and sat down next to Karen. I was so focused upon my teaching that I saw her but didn't recognize this smiling young woman sitting next to my wife. At the conclusion of my presentation, as I was walking to my seat I realized, "It's Lena!"

We hugged and kissed and hugged some more. She was pleased to hear me speak some Russian and I was surprised to hear her speak English. In many ways she has not changed at all. She still is the outwardly happy, bubbly young girl that we met so many years ago. She works, lives on her own and seems to be surviving. Her daughter is now 11 years old and because of family issues she is in a custody fight with her mother-in-law. She told us that she had used drugs for 3-4 years but now she is drug free. We asked if we could help her in any way and she declined, saying she is doing well.

The same awkwardness in the relationship is still there. We were her momma and papa, but we are not. How do we relate to one another? Life marches on, things change, relationships change and sometimes life is just not easy.

We will always love this young woman. We still struggle with anger over the injustice that separated us. We wish that things could have been different. We ask God, "WHY?" There are no answers. Just questions.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Meet My Friend Sasha
Sasha is twenty six years old. He entered the Center for Social Rehabilitation (a homeless shelter) nine months ago. Some of the church brothers found him in a hospital where he had been taken because he was half dead and his feet were frostbitten and decaying. The hospital amputated all 5 toes on one foot and several others on the other foot. Sasha was homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol. The center offered him a place to stay, care for his feet and hope for change.

I remember the first time we met. Sasha, like many young guys from the street was a bit of a wise guy. They often have the idea that they are smarter than other people, and he certainly had that attitude. I wondered if he would continue in rehabilitation. Surprisingly, every week when we came to teach, Sasha was still there. He sat in a chair, his feet wrapped in bloody bandages. He couldn't stand or walk on his own. I often wondered what it must be like to have to be helped to the open hole outhouse to "do your business" in this condition. It was clear that Sasha was beginning to change. He was listening to the teaching and he began to participate in the worship. He now had a genuine smile instead of a wise-guy smirk.

In July of last year we had an American team visit us. We took them to meet the people going through rehab. At the meeting I invited anyone to give a brief testimony about what was happening in their lives, to the American team. I was surprised when Sasha got up and began to speak. He told how as a teen his father had tried to kill him by hitting him in the head with an axe! Sasha still carries the scars from that attack. He has a large dent in the right side of his head, a smaller dent in the left side and small scars all over his head. He believes that God saved his life in that attack. His neck is also deeply scarred because his father also tried to slit his throat. He told about living on the street for years and finally coming to the rehab center and finding a home. He said that coming to the center saved his life. During his testimony he began to weep loudly. It was a powerful moment, and we could see the Holy Spirit touch him.

From that day forward we watched him really begin to grow spiritually week by week. Over the Christmas holidays I was speaking with Sasha and asking him how he was. He causally said, "my sister died this week, she was the last person in my family, I am the only one now living." I was shocked and saddened. What can you say? He had just lost the only living relative that he had. She was an addict and had died from a drug overdose. Sasha said, "I was afraid I would be angry, and turn away from the Lord, but I realized that He could use this in my life if I would allow it. I decided to not be bitter and angry but rather to continue to follow the Lord and ask Him to change me and help me to follow Him." Wow, that is maturity. This young man was making some solid decisions to be a disciple despite the loss in his life. I was so proud of him at that moment.

Shasha has a desire to continue to follow Christ and grow in his Christian life. he desires to serve people and be in ministry. Before the teaching tonight we sat for about ten minutes as I tried to answer his questions. He was talking about growing in Christ, and how do you know if you are filled with the Holy Spirit. He just had this huge smile on his face the whole time we talked. This week he became an assisting leader at the homeless shelter. He is responsible to help oversee things, help others in their walk and tonight he led the opening of the meeting before I taught. He has a real servant's heart and he loves people.

After the meeting we spoke again for a few minutes. I am encouraging Sasha to continue serving people, and to study the Word of God and to not be afraid to begin teaching. I told him that my desire for him was to grow in his leadership gifts and to dream of taking a team and starting a church in another city in a couple of years.

I love what we do here. Every week these guys tell us how wonderful we are to come and teach them. They treat us as if we are some super-people from America. I try and tell them what a privilege it is for us that we can call them our friends. We get so much from them! We are better people because of them! When Jesus tells us to open our eyes and see the ripe harvest He is telling us to see the Sashas of the world, the broken and destroyed people, the people without hope, the addicted, the poor, the helpless. These are our brothers and sisters. They are the harvest that so often the church misses. They are the future of the church. What a blessing it is for us to be here working alongside these brothers and sisters and having them call us their friends.